If you just tuned in to Erez Eltawil’s nightmarish story on Locked Up Abroad: Colombian Kidnap, I’m sure you have questions. We checked in with Erez to get answers and see what life is like for him today and here’s what he had to say:
What was the original draw to Colombia for you?
I was looking for a place to relax and party, with nearby beaches in order to end my trip in a relaxed, chill-out atmosphere. My original plan was to go back to Brazil, where I started my South-American journey, but I’ve met some travelers in Peru who recommended Colombia. Since it was cheaper and closer to get to, I decided to change my plans.
How long had you been traveling before you wound up in Santa Marta? Had you heard stories of people being kidnapped, or been warned about potential safety issues?
I have been traveling for eight months in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. Colombia was my last stop before heading for the states. I’d heard about the guerrillas in Colombia from other travelers and that there are kidnappings there, but everyone I met that had been there insisted that they are not interested in foreigners and only kidnap local people for money.
During all the marching and moving in captivity, were you allow to continue carrying your belongings? (if yes…) How much weight was on your back?
We were allowed to take our bags but the kidnappers wouldn’t let me take my sleeping bag. I carried a big hiking bag with two sets of clothes (one for hot weather and one for cold), a pack of cards and a mini disc player (which was taken away after a few days). Later on we received blankets to carry around in our bags for the cold nights.
What did your group do for food and drink?
Food was not our responsibility. Our captors made all the food themselves and split it up among us. We each made our own “plate” from a fruit called “uyama” and ate from that. We each had a bottle and we filled it up with water from the river. We also picked up fruits and plants (like sabra and sugar canes) and ate it along the road.
What weather conditions, insects, and terrain did you have to endure in the jungle?
The weather and insects were two of the big problems in the Jungle. The road was always muddy, so we kept falling and hurting ourselves as we walked. The change of weather between sunny and rain was constant, and we had to walk with wet clothes for many miles. I also constantly got bit by mosquitoes and ants, and I even had a rat run over my had while I slept. We also encountered a snake for a short while near our bags, but no one got bitten. I had one mosquito bite on my lower back get badly infected, and I had to get some antibiotic shots in the Jungle.
After you challenged your captors by sitting down during a march, did they treat you any differently?
I truly believe the kidnappers had as bad a time as we did during the whole kidnapping. They knew that making our lives bad would reflect on them as well. As a result, they kept threatening us that if we didn’t walk they were gonna treat us badly, but they never held themselves to that promise.
Were you ever allowed to contact your family (write a letter, etc…) during your captivity, or did they handle the hostage negotiations alone?
The only contact we had with our families were through a “proof of life” video, in which we gave a message to our families in Hebrew, but they never released that part. We also had contact through a special program on the Colombian radio, in which the parents of the four Israelis were interviewed and sent us messages.
The negotiations were held between the government of Colombia and the head’s of the ELN (the guerrillas) with the mediation of the Catholic church.
What went through your mind when Reini was released and you were still a hostage?
Every emotion I had during the captivity was bi-polar. On the one hand, I was thrilled for her, because she had a very hard time being the only woman captive. I was also glad because it meant that they were releasing people and that’s always a good sign.
On the other hand, it got me really down because now that they’ve released Reini and Asier, something really big needs to happen in order for them to release us. The mixed emotions were very typical to every piece of news we got, and it was not different with Reini’s release.
Did you learn anything about yourself during captivity?
I would like to say I’ve learned something about myself, but I don’t think I have. Every state of mind I was in during captivity was extraordinary and doesn’t reflect on anything in the real world. When I was released, I thought I would take life in a more relaxed manner. But as time goes by, routine takes over and it all goes back to the way it was.
It sounds like you had quite a homecoming after your release! What were those first few days home like? And what’s life like for you now?
The first few days were really euphoric. I had friends and family coming to visit constantly. I had my brother and sister arrange a late birthday party (I celebrated my 24th birthday in the Jungle). I even had a huge welcome sign from the city council congratulating me on my release. I also got a few free vacations to help me relax. I did, however, decide to get a job quickly so I would not concentrate on what I’d been through. I started working in a DVD rental place quickly after getting back.
Do you still have plans to visit The Lost City?
I have already been back to Colombia. I was there for a week with Reini, Mark and Ido, to film a documentary about returning to the lost city and facing the kidnappers (which I didn’t get to do since he wouldn’t meet with the Israelis). It was good closure for me, and if I ever get the chance to go back again I would love to.
Watch an all new episode of Locked Up Abroad: Caribbean Nightmare, Wednesday, June 20th at 10P et/pt.